New Delhi: Was the Union government short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha when the upper house contentiously passed the farm bills through a voice vote on September 20? Government representatives and ruling Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons on multiple television shows have dismissed any such assumption, and have asserted that MPs in the treasury benches outnumbered those who were opposed to the bills on that particular day.
However, the opposition’s anger over RS deputy chairman Harivansh denying them a division vote on the controversial bills has only fuelled such speculation.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is in a minority in the upper house, and has been heavily dependent on other regional parties to pass legislation. In the case of farm bills, however, two of its most important constituents – the Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam,with 3 and 9 seats (including PMK) respectively – had made their opposition evident. While the lone SAD minister in the Union cabinet Harsimrat Kaur Badal had resigned in protest, the AIADMK was reportedly in favour of sending the bills to a select committee for further review.
Additionally, the NDA’s traditional ‘allies’ in parliament like the Biju Janata Dal and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, too, were in favour of sending the bills to a select committee. With only the YSR Congress in favour of the bills, the NDA, for the first time, had a struggle in its hands to gain a majority in the upper house.
The government claims that the farm bills – by allowing agro-business companies to trade in farm produce – would help farmers get rid of the exploitative middlemen in agrarian markets, thereby generating greater revenues for them. However, the farmers themselves have been protesting widely against the bills as they feel the bills are the first step towards rendering the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime – which ensures that the government procures the crop at a fixed rate – and the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC), a community-oriented platform for buying and selling the crop, go defunct in the long run.
With the issue generating sharply polarising views both in parliament and outside, the decision of the deputy chairman, who presided over the RS session, declaring the farm bills as passed after an unclear voice vote has run into criticism from a wide section of civil society.
Opposition MPs have particularly raised two questions regarding the bills’ passage, which they have qualified as both “unconstitutional” and “undemocratic”.
First, they have claimed that despite at least three members asking for a division of votes, the deputy chairman did not pay any heed to their demand. Rajya Sabha rules mandate that even if a single member demands a division of votes, i.e voting by pressing buttons, the chair is bound to call for it.
On his part, the deputy chairman, while justifying his decision to go for a voice vote, has said that there were no calls for a division.
Two, they have also said that despite repeated demands from the opposition to postpone voting for a day so that multiple resolutions on the bills could be moved properly, and that voting happens on each of them through a division of votes, the deputy chairman rammed the bills through such a hurried voice vote. They allege that such haste on the part of the chair, while ignoring legitimate opposition demands, reflected his political bias.
Speaking to The Wire, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP Tiruchi Siva said, “What happened in the Rajya Sabha was unprecedented, nothing short of bulldozing our parliamentary democracy. I was in my seat (one of the rulebook requirements to move a motion or demand a division) when I asked for a division of votes. I kept shouting ‘division, division’ but the deputy chairman didn’t look towards me. I yelled so much that I had muscle cramps for the next two days. I couldn’t swallow food properly.”
“In my two-decade of parliamentary experience, I have never seen such a thing happening in the house,” he added.
He went on to describe the proceedings of the house, and said that the opposition expressed its demand for a division vote on each opposition motion prior to the final voice vote on the bill – be it a statutory resolution, amendment motions, or a matter seeking referral to the select committee. “But all our calls were ignored. All these motions were defeated through a voice vote. Even in those, the opposition was louder than the treasury benches. It was when we were left with no option that we started protesting,” he said.
“We were sensitive to the fact that the house had little time to take up matters elaborately because of the pandemic’s constraints under which parliament was functioning. So, the treasury benches and the rest of the opposition had an agreement that we will let many of the non-controversial bills scheduled for Sunday go through cordially, and reserve the maximum time for debate on contested bills. My party, the DMK, were opposed to certain clauses in the farm bills and the Banking Regulation (Amendment) Bill. So many of my motions seeking that they be sent to a select committee were listed. In each of them, we wanted a division of votes. But shockingly, my appeals were ignored. Why so much urgency? We were only asking if the bills could be discussed the next day,” he told The Wire.
Derek O’Brien, Trinamool Congress MP, said that the microphones of all MPs were muted before the voice vote. Thus, the opposition MPs kept yelling to demand a division. “Between us, Siva and I have 30 years of experience in parliament. We knew we had moved motions, we had our headsets on. Of course we were at our seats. Our calls for ‘division’ (voting) were brazenly ignored multiple times,” he told The Wire.
Around 1pm on Sunday September 20, the government murdered parliamentary democracy. They broke every rule of #Parliament.
Did they hope that the opposition would just sit and watch?
Here’s a 9 min video. pic.twitter.com/HMZbFiSXpo
— Derek O’Brien | ডেরেক ও’ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) September 20, 2020
Similarly, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s K.K. Ragesh also asserted that their demand for a division was clearly audible in the House, but the deputy chairman ignored those calls.
“My party had multiple amendment motions. After a three-hour debate, the house had very little time (around an hour) to tackle all motions. Apart from my party, other parties also had many motions. Since we were demanding division, it would have required at least 40 minutes to first table and then vote on every motion. That is why we were all asking the deputy chairman to postpone the matter to Monday,” he said.
Ragesh added that when he first moved a statutory resolution (to nullify the farm ordinances), the deputy chairman asked for a voice vote on it, and passed it immediately after the first voice call. “He was not listening. I understood then something was deeply wrong. I was also protesting in the well but I came back to my seat to call for a division. Since mics were muted, I kept yelling “division” from the gallery where I had my seat,” the Rajya Sabha legislator told The Wire.
A video clip of the proceedings which The Wire reviewed showed both Siva and Ragesh shouting from their seats, even as O’ Brien can be seen flashing the rulebook in front of the deputy chairman’s chair. At one stage of the clip, one can hear “division” twice before the RSTV footage audio was suddenly lost before coming back after four seconds. Throughout the clip, members are seen protesting against the alleged violation of rules in the house in front of the deputy chairman’s seat.
“The video and audio evidence is damning. At least four rules of parliament were broken,” said O’Brien, who emphasised that some of the opposition MPs were forced to storm the well of the house and agitate loudly because they had exhausted all their rightful options. “Extreme situations invite extreme protests too. When the BJP is breaking the very backbone of our parliamentary democracy, the opposition can’t sit in their seats and have lollipops,” he said.
Many in the opposition said that the deputy chairman disregarded rule numbers 37, 125, 126, 252, and 257 that day even before the final voice vote on the bills happened, which led to the protests inside the house. Although eight of them, including Siva, Ragesh, and O’ Brien, were among the eight members who were suspended for unruly behaviour, a look at the Rajya Sabha rulebook cited by them backs their case that many of those rules may have been indeed violated during the debate on the farm bills.
Rajya Sabha passes The Farmers (Empowerment&Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance&Farm Services Bill, 2020 amid uproar by the opposition.
The bill provides for a farming agreement between a farmer and a buyer prior to the production or rearing of any farm produce. pic.twitter.com/2pGvFP2Szw
— All India Radio News (@airnewsalerts) September 20, 2020
What do these rules say?
37. No variation in the Allocation of Time Order shall be made except by the [Chairman], who may make such variation if he is satisfied after taking the sense of the Council that there is a general agreement for such variation.
The opposition has said that the bills were allocated time from 9.30 am to 1 pm. After the hours finished, the deputy chairman decided to extend the discussion. However, MPs alleged that he made the decision unilaterally without confirming whether the opposition was in favour of it or not.
“The deputy chairman, thus, did not take the consensus of the house. We wanted it to be postponed so that a division of vote on every motion and every clause of the farm bills could happen,” an opposition leader, who requested anonymity, told The Wire, adding that this led to the first burst of mild protests in the opposition ranks.
125. Any member may (if the Bill has not already been referred to a Joint Committee of the Houses, but not otherwise) move as an amendment that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee and, if such motion is carried, the Bill shall be referred to a Select Committee, and the rules regarding Select Committees on Bills originating in the Council shall then apply.
An opposition MP said that many amendment motions which were listed on Sunday demanded that the bills should be sent to the select committee but the parliamentary tradition was openly violated by gagging the opposition.
“It is a tradition in the parliament that the amendment seeking a further review is generally accepted since it is always preferred that the bills be passed by a large consensus. The opposition is granted that democratic space by the government. The idea is to have the best possible laws – and those which are accepted by all stakeholders. The practice has always been viewed as something which is in the best interests of the country. However, neither was there a discussion on it, nor, a legitimate enough vote,” he said.
126. If the motion that the Bill be taken into consideration is carried, the Bill shall be taken into consideration clause by clause and the provisions of the rules of the Council regarding consideration of amendments to Bills and the subsequent procedure in regard to the passing of Bills shall apply.
On Sunday, none of the clauses were discussed or put to vote, Siva said. “Every demand of the opposition was being ignored. We never reached a stage where we could even demand a discussion on clauses of the bill. All the motions were merely declared to have been passed through a quick voice vote. Everything happened in an unseemly haste,” the DMK MP said.
252. Division (1) On the conclusion of a debate, the Chairman shall put the question and invite those who are in favour of the motion to say “Aye” and those against the motion to say “No”. (2) The Chairman shall then say: “I think the Ayes (or the Noes, as the case may be) have it”. If the opinion of the Chairman as to the decision of a question is not challenged, he shall say twice: “The Ayes (or the Noes, as the case may be) have it” and the question before the Council shall be determined accordingly. (3) If the opinion of the Chairman as to the decision of a question is challenged, he may, if he thinks fit, ask the members who are for “Aye” and those for “No” respectively to rise in their places and, on a count being taken, he may declare the determination of the Council. In such a case, the names of the voters shall not be recorded.
(4) (a) If the opinion of the Chairman as to the decision of a question is challenged and he does not adopt the course provided for in sub- rule (3) he shall order a “Division” to be held. (b) After the [lapse of three minutes and thirty seconds] , he shall put the question a second time and declare whether in his opinion the “Ayes” or the “Noes” have it. (c) If the opinion so declared is again challenged, votes shall be taken by operating the automatic vote recorder or by the members going into the Lobbies.
Constitutional experts agree on the fact that even if a single member demands a vote, the chair is bound by the rules to order a division. “If a division is asked for, it is granted. I am not aware of what precisely happened in Rajya Sabha on Sunday, but the fundamental rule of Parliament is ‘minority must have its say, majority must have its way’. If any attempt is made to gag the minority, it is wrong. It would be equally wrong if the minority tries to dictate the majority,” Subhash C. Kashyap, well-known constitutional expert and former Lok Sabha secretary-general, told The Wire.
P.D.T Achary, another former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, concurred. “There are many times when bills have been passed even in a state of ruckus. Even in UPA times, bills were passed through voice vote. But what happened on Sunday appears to be different in that when a division of vote was demanded by certain members, the chair didn’t even look at them. The chair has to grant the request even if it is made verbally. In that sense, the bills can’t be treated as passed as per the provisions of the rules. The division vote system stems from Article 100 of the Indian constitution,” he said.
257. In the case of grave disorder arising in the Council, the Chairman may, if he thinks it necessary to do so, adjourn the Council or suspend any sitting for a time to be named by him.
An opposition MP told The Wire that a delegation of opposition leaders had met the chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu in the morning to register their protest. However, no action was taken afterwards.
“He didn’t turn up after that. Deputy chairman Harivansh took charge of the House. He could have adjourned the House for sometime to form a consensus with leaders of all parties to steer the smooth passage of the bills. But he didn’t even do that,” said the MP.
Achary, too, told The Wire that the chair had the option to adjourn, call party leaders in his chamber, and discuss the matter. “This has largely been the consensus to ascertain that a bill is passed by a majority opinion,” he said.
A video clip of the proceedings lends weight to the claims of the opposition
An RSTV clip which documents the Rajya Sabha proceedings from 1.07 pm to 1.26 pm showed that even as Ragesh’s motion to send the bills to a select committee was put through a voice vote by the deputy chairman, shouts of “division” were heard at least three times from the benches. After his motion was declared defeated, shouts of division were heard again at least twice. Again, when O’Brien’s motion calling for the same was defeated, calls for division echoed in the House and could be heard again.
Amidst these calls, the audio was cut off for a few seconds and came back again when Harivansh was seen instructing a member that division can only be demanded from the seat.
Siva, then, was seen shouting from his seat after his motion was defeated too. Siva claimed that his mic was muted and he was shouting “division” but the chair did not look towards him at all. He was seen raising his hand and shouting again from his seat after a few seconds. O’Brien was then seen flashing the rulebook and pointing out to the chairman that the proceedings were happening in violation of the rules. Siva was also seen shouting from his seat in protest, and a call for division was audible once again. Since Siva was wearing a mask, it was not entirely unclear as to what he was saying.
When Ragesh’s motion for amendment was moved the CPI(M) MP was seen shouting from his seat, number 92, in the gallery. His mic was also muted but he said that he had been calling for a division as well. He was seen protesting from his seat multiple times after this.
A ruckus followed soon after, as opposition members protested. All this while, the deputy chairman single had been singularly going through the motions of tabling the opposition motions and declaring them “negative,” after a voice vote which could hardly be heard amidst the noise.
At 1.14 pm, the RSTV muted audio entirely and kept it muted until the adjournment of the House at 1.26 pm. Around 17 minutes into the video, BJP leader Bhupendra Yadav and Harivansh were seen consulting. After about two minutes, as the pandemonium escalated, the deputy chair was seen getting up from his seat, saying something. The RSTV then announced that the House has been adjourned.
The urgency with which the bills were passed has stoked the sentiment among opposition that the deputy chairman, also a NDA member, could have acted with political prejudice in allegedly suppressing demands for a division or ignoring the requests of the opposition leaders.
“There is a possibility that the NDA was not confident of winning a majority. A BJD MP had told me that his party will support my motion of sending the bills to a select committee. I knew that AIADMK and TRS were in favour of the same too. A number of NDA MPs were absent either because they were COVID-19 positive or were in quarantine. The manner in which our requests were rejected and ignored smacked of a political plan by the government to ram through the bills in any which way on Sunday itself,” said Ragesh.
Similarly, another opposition MP who requested anonymity told The Wire that it appeared as if the government had resolved to pass the bills by any means on that day. “Upon seeing that the BJD and TRS may not vote in their favour, they bulldozed the parliamentary process. BJP leader Bhupendra Yadav walked up to the chair multiple times and murmured something to the deputy chairman, even as the opposition members protested in the well of the house,” he said.
Amidst speculations of political bias and the contention that the government may not have had a majority on Sunday, it is unclear if the calls for division that are clearly heard in the RSTV video clip have been documented in the official records. If not, then this fresh flouting of rules may lead to another outcry from the opposition.
Constitutional experts like Achary and Kashyap believe that had the deputy chairman called for a joint sitting of all parties, the controversy could have been easily avoided. And that the farm bills would have been another instance in which the government could have won the division vote in certain terms.
The Wire has emailed a questionnaire to the deputy chairman seeking his response on the opposition allegations. The story will be updated if and when he replies.